How Tony Blair dressed Iraq regime change up as disarmament

There is compelling evidence that, by March 2002, Tony Blair had given President Bush a commitment to support the US in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime by military means.

Evidence for this emerged in September 2004, when 6 official documents from March 2002 were leaked to the Daily Telegraph and came into the public domain.  Facsimiles of them can be read on my website.

One of these was a memo to Tony Blair, dated 14 March 2002, from his Foreign Policy Adviser, Sir David Manning. The memo reported on Sir David’s discussions in Washington with Condoleezza Rice, who was then the President’s National Security adviser.  The key sentence in this is:

“I said [to Condoleezza Rice] that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States.”

In other words, by March 2002, the Bush administration was given an assurance that Tony Blair was unflinching in his commitment to regime change in Iraq, and not merely to its disarmament in accordance with Security Council resolutions, as he told the British public.

His commitment was confirmed by another leaked document, this one a memo from Sir Christopher Meyer, the British Ambassador in Washington, to Sir David himself.  This reported on a conversation with Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy Defense Secretary, on 17 March 2002.  The next day, Sir Christopher wrote to Sir David, as follows:

“I opened by sticking very closely to the script that you used with Condi Rice. We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option. It would be a tough sell for us domestically, and probably tougher elsewhere in Europe.”

Later, in November 2005, Sir Christopher published an account of his time in Washington as British Ambassador in a book called, DC Confidential.  In it, he wrote:

“By this stage, Tony Blair had already taken the decision to support regime change, though he was discreet about saying so in public.” (p241)

The stage in question was prior to the meeting between Bush and Blair in Crawford, Texas, in early April 2002.

So, in my view, there is little doubt that, by March 2002, Tony Blair was committed to supporting the US in taking military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.  But, in Sir Christopher’s words, there had to be a “clever plan” to sell the project to the British people.

The “clever plan” was to persuade the Security Council to pass a resolution demanding that Iraq readmit UN inspectors, but on terms that would make it impossible for Saddam Hussein to accept – in which case, there would be a good possibility that the Security Council would authorise military action, ostensibly to disarm Iraq, and, as a byproduct, the Iraqi regime would be overthrown.

Evidence that this was the strategy to be employed is to be found in Sir Christopher Meyer’s memo, where he wrote that if the US “wanted to act with partners, there had to be a strategy for building support for military action against Saddam”.  He continued: “I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors … ”.

The leaked minutes of a high powered meeting on Iraq in Downing Street on 23 July 2002 provide further evidence. There, Tony Blair is recorded as saying:

“… it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. … If the political context were right, people would support regime change.”

Clearly, Tony Blair was looking forward to Saddam Hussein keeping UN inspectors out, even though the peaceful disarmament of Iraq required their admission.  Consistent with this, when on 16 September 2002 Iraq stated its willingness to allow UN inspectors back in, the US and the UK blocked their re-entry.
In early October 2002, the US/UK proposed a draft resolution to the Security Council, which, in keeping with the “clever plan”, was designed to set terms for the re-admission of UN inspectors that Iraq couldn’t accept – and authorised military action if admission was refused.

However, the US/UK draft resolution wasn’t passed.  Instead, it was amended to remove the terms that would have been unacceptable to Iraq and the authorisation for military action.  This amended resolution was passed as resolution 1441 on 8 November 2002, and UN inspectors returned to Iraq.

The “clever plan” to “wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors” had failed – and the military action planned by the US/UK to overthrow his regime had to proceed without authorisation by the Security Council.